Not all of World War II was fought on the battlefield. Fighting the Nazis and imperialist Japan also consisted of a propaganda effort to help rally the nation behind the cause. The amazing true story of five Hollywood directors who abandoned their comfy lifestyle to serve their country in a concerted effort to document the struggle of World War II is the subject of the fantastic book by Mark Harris, Five Came Back. An incredibly well-researched piece of military and cinematic history, Five Came Back is a page-turner of the best kind that is enthralling and informative. Now Five Came Back has been adapted into a documentary series for Netflix. While this three-part series can’t match the depth of Harris’ book, it’s an amazing companion piece that honors the sacrifice of the five legendary directors as well as the larger national struggle to defeat the Axis powers. Like the text on which it’s based, Five Came Back is educational as well as thrilling in examining the role of cinema in World War II.
Five Came Back tells the story of the quintet of directors – Frank Capra, John Ford, George Stevens, William Wyler, and John Huston – and how they each left behind thriving careers in service of something greater. To elaborate on each director is a quintet of modern filmmakers. Steven Spielberg takes on Wyler, Guillermo Del Toro has Capra, Paul Greengrass handles Ford, Francis Ford Coppola discusses Huston, and Lawrence Kasdan discusses Stevens. Their analysis of these filmmakers is interspersed between archival interviews and footage as well as narration written by Harris and delivered by Meryl Streep. The modern directors provide context for the work of each of the filmmakers as well as biographical information while the narration by Streep tie these threads together with historical information and pertinent stories that range from the emotionally powerful to comic anecdotes. It allows Five Came Back to retain the feel of the book while standing on its own because the quintet of modern directors have their own observations about the work of each filmmaker that differs from Harris’ interpretation.
As great at Harris’ book is, there’s one thing that this documentary series does that he simply can’t do on the page – present the visuals of the movies being discussed. Whether it’s discussing the pre-war films of Capra and Ford or the wartime documentaries produced by Huston and Wyler, Five Came Back provides the visual context that a book simply cannot, adding another stunning layer to this incredible true story. One of the most thrilling chapters in the book dealt with John Ford’s filming of the Battle of Midway, and seeing the documentary footage makes Ford’s military exploits all the more incredible than they were on the page.
Five Came Back isn’t simply a piece of reverence for America’s role in the war effort. The series, directed by Laurent Bouzereau, doesn’t shy away from being critical of some of the filmmaker’s efforts as well as the racist aspects of the anti-Japanese propaganda, which took a noticeably different tone than anti-German propaganda. Some of the propaganda films these directors made were entirely staged, and it’s fascinating to watch these modern masters of filmmaking debate the ethical merits of staging events and passing them off as real. Five Came Back also gets into the segregation of the military and the constraints that the filmmakers were under when trying to make unifying propaganda that was inclusive of black Americans. This documentary series is on par with the book because it can look at the whole of America’s role in the war, from our collective triumphs to our collective shame.
This documentary series does what Harris’ book does best – work as both a history of Hollywood and military operations during World War II. It’s full of funny anecdotes, such Daryl Zanuck donning a uniform and making a documentary that extolled the virtues of Daryl Zanuck. (He was later discharged and his uniform-wearing habits were lampooned in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink.) It highlights the sacrifices that so many made to defeat the rising tide of fascism, and how the war was fought on a number of different fronts. Making a documentary informative is tricky on its own, but making it as informative as well as thrilling as Five Came Back is truly an incredible feat. This magnificent piece of documentary filmmaking should be viewed by film lovers and history buffs alike, and perhaps we can all learn something about what makes us all Americans.
Five Came Back debuts exclusively on Netflix on Friday, March 31st. In conjunction with the release of Five Came Back, Netflix will also be featuring a number of the documentaries made by these filmmakers during World War II.